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GUEST COMMENTARY: Runaway Train 

A rezoning that would reshape our city is being pushed through while residents are distracted by the pandemic.

click to enlarge 2000 block of West Broad St. The genesis of the rezoning effort to build 20-plus story buildings along Broad Street can be found in the Pulse Corridor plan from 2017.

Scott Elmquist

2000 block of West Broad St. The genesis of the rezoning effort to build 20-plus story buildings along Broad Street can be found in the Pulse Corridor plan from 2017.

Timing is everything.

And right now, during a pandemic, Richmond’s Planning Department is steamrolling new rezoning ordinances through City Hall that would allow 20-plus story buildings along sections of Broad Street.

The City Council vote on this sweeping change that will shape our city for a century is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 28 – in spite of an edict from the Virginia attorney general to defer permanent, nonemergency decisions, such as land-use cases, until the pandemic and related quarantines are over.

Why is the Planning Department rushing this consequential, nonemergency rezoning through City Hall while residents are focused on actual life-and-death issues?

Eight civic associations in the vicinity of the Broad Street corridor between Belvidere Street and Arthur Ashe Boulevard have united in support of development, growth and greater density that honor our architectural legacy, history and our burgeoning urban revival. These associations are among many that represent more than a generation of sweat equity in our neighborhoods. These pioneers created new spirit in the body of the old, and we now welcome new businesses and development. We have insisted that these opportunities can and should benefit and include all of Richmond – residents, businesses and developers.

Precisely because we want to foster community-based, multifaceted growth, we oppose the Planning Department’s proposal to allow 20-story buildings on areas of Broad Street surrounded by human-scaled, architecturally rich, historic residential neighborhoods.

Flaws in the proposal are vexing. The zoning ignores specific requirements stipulated by City Council vote, the Planning Department has been deceptively selective in its presentation of information and no common-sense case has been made to shoehorn downtown business district zoning into a slice of an uptown neighborhood.

The genesis of the rezoning is a document called the Pulse Corridor plan, which City Council approved in 2017. The 190-page contains renderings, broad concepts such as mixed use and treatments of the Pulse station areas. The plan also includes specific requirements supported by area residents and businesses, such as:

“The building size, density, and zoning districts for these areas will vary depending on historic densities and neighborhood characteristics. New development should be in scale with existing context. …

“Create a new mixed-use zoning district that allows mid-rise buildings, up to 12 stories in building height. Current zoning districts do not allow the type of development envisioned. … A new district would fill this gap in the zoning ordinance and provide opportunities to build mid-rise buildings.”

The proposed rezoning violates these requirements.

The proposed B-4 zoning allowing 20 or more stories fails to scale with existing context on Broad Street between Belvidere and Arthur Ashe Boulevard. And most clearly, the B-4 zoning blatantly flaunts the utterly clear mandate to create a new zoning district for building as tall as 12 stories.

Our eight civic associations – Carver, Fan District, Jackson Ward, Monument Avenue, Newtowne West, the Coalition of Concerned Civic Associations, the Fan Area Business Alliance and West Grace Street – sent a collective letter to the Planning Department questioning the rezoning, requesting a pause until after the quarantine and inviting the department to engage in a new action plan to work together. The department did not even respond to our letter, despite repeated requests. Its refusal to address multiple concerns raises the question, “Who is it working for?”

We have filed a Freedom of Information Act request for correspondence between the Planning Department and property owners on Broad Street. If the department is spurning the residents and area businesses, we want to know. If it is not and is simply a rogue player seeking to make Richmond a mini-Manhattan, we want to know that, too. We do know this much: It is not working for the residents.

We have no vested interest other than seeking the common good, for the future of our exceptional city. Let’s consider together what role models we want to emulate. Atlanta and Charlotte provide possibilities. Charleston, Barcelona and Paris – with hardly any high-rise buildings at all – provide others.

We ask all residents to help us reclaim our city. Let’s work together. We remain optimistic. We believe that disparate stakeholders can work together to achieve the common good. Together, we make it better yet. Contact your elected representatives. Whether you prefer one- story or 100-story tall buildings, let we the people decide. We implore you to reach out to every City Council member and the mayor to pause this runaway rezoning freight train until we can all get together, work it out and get it right.

Jonathan Marcus, a resident of West Grace Street, is president of the RVA Coalition of Concerned Citizens and board member of both the Historic West Grace Street Association and the Fan District Association. Contact him at jonmarcus59@gmail.com.

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